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Orange County Center Attracting Diverse Audience

Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Performing Arts Center, which celebrated its second anniversary Thursday, has made extraordinary inroads in attracting a regional audience that characterizes itself as largely lukewarm to performing arts and culture events, a poll commissioned by The Times has found.

Four in 10 adult Orange County residents interviewed in the poll said they have attended a performance at the Center at least once within the last year and--in what is considered striking by arts experts--two-thirds of those went back again.

Nevertheless, only about 2 in 10 adults surveyed said performing arts and cultural events are “very important” in their lives. Slightly more than half rated the arts as “somewhat important.” And roughly 2 in 10 said they were “not important.”

The poll of 600 Orange County residents also found that the Center drew people with household incomes of less than $50,000 in almost equal numbers as those with higher incomes, indicating that the $73.3-million facility does not cater overwhelmingly to the rich, as commonly perceived. (The poll has a margin of error of 4%.)

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Center president Thomas R. Kendrick, when told of the poll’s findings, said in an interview that he was “very impressed” by the apparent market penetration. “It’s a phenomenal number that we had not heard before,” he said.

Kendrick noted that the Center’s honeymoon with the public was reflected in actual attendance figures. “We have been operating at levels way beyond the national average,” he said, acknowledging that may simply mean “a lot of people (are) coming to see what this place is all about.”

According to Center records, more than 1.2 million people have attended performances at the 2,994-seat Segerstrom Hall since it opened in September, 1986.

Mark Baldassare, the UC Irvine sociology professor who conducted the survey, said, “People’s memories may be hazy about how many times they have attended in exactly the last 365 days. It’s probable that we’re picking up attendance over a longer period of time, possibly since the Center opened.”

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When county residents were asked what kind of live performances they are most interested in attending, Broadway plays easily outdistanced all other choices. Some 40% said that was their preference. Another 27% preferred pop music, followed by classical music (14%), dance (10%), opera (4%) and other events (5%).

“You could have predicted that without a poll,” said Joseph Golden, the author of “Olympus on Main Street,” a book about suburban performing arts centers. “Everybody wants Broadway plays.”

Broadway musicals were seen more often than any other kind of offering during the last 12 months. According to figures provided by OCPAC, 85 of 248 performances at Segerstrom Hall fell into that category. Broadway musical thus comprised 34% of all its offerings on a nightly basis.

On the other hand, it offered only 28 performances of pop music of one sort or another--representing 11% of all offerings--which is distinctly not a match.

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Further, classical music of various kinds was available 25% of the time, with 63 performances; ballet was offered 18% of the time, with 44 performances; and opera was seen 6% of the time, with 15 performances.

Taken together, the high-brow disciplines were presented considerably more often than county preferences would dictate--lending credence to the claim that for all its middle-brow fare the Center has striven for cultural rather than entertainment programming. And, in fact, the county audience has responded.

“The most exciting thing we’ve seen,” said Kendrick, “has been the response to the ballet, which was expected to be very weak and has been quite strong.”

If the Center can be said to cater to any particular group of people, according to the poll, it is well-educated women. Among those describing themselves as repeat Center-goers, 59% were women and 59% were college graduates. Nonetheless, frequent attendees represent a tiny fraction--only 4%--of all the adults in the county.

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The poll found that women in the county outnumbered men by almost 2 to 1 in rating the arts “very important” and college graduates outnumbered high school graduates by the same ratio on that level of arts interest.

Indeed, education and gender--not wealth--were found to be the most important predictors of interest in the arts.

The poll indicated that the richest and poorest county residents rated the importance of arts and culture almost identically. Twenty-two percent of those earning less than $35,000 said the arts were very important while 24% of those earning more than $75,000 gave it that rating.

Though interest in the arts increases with education, it does not do so with age. Twenty-four percent of all adults, ages 18 to 34, consider the arts very important as did 24% of those 55 or older. Only 20% of those from 35 to 54 gave their interest in the arts that rating.

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